European Elections, Britain and Oscar Wilde

Britain and Oscar Wilde

European Elections, Britain and Oscar Wilde

Dear readers of my blog,

on day one after the latest European Elections I cannot but reflect on this event that has had eleven editions since 1979 when, just turned seventeen, I only could take part by counting votes in Unna, Westphalia, where I grew up.

Today, Monday, 27th May 2019, I did not wake up to see surprising banner headlines, as did Britons back in June 2016 who had gone to bed thinking that the Remainers would clinch the day only to wake up with the Leavers being the winners who have not, as it seems now, taken all.

The English Premier League Clubs are going to take all the international silverware there is this week because Arsenal and Chelsea as well as Liverpool and Tottenham face each other later in the week in the Europa League and Champions League Finals. The English national team are also joint favourites to win the Nations League early next month. All these sides are united by a common purpose, while being samples of diversity, just as anybody can see who walks the streets of London or Manchester.

At the same time, however, nothing seems more disunited than the so-called United Kingdom, or, more precisely still, the Conservative and Unionist Party currently heading for an internecine leadership contest scheduled to take more or less two months that a lady politician helped avoid almost three years ago by putting forward her name. Now, still in May this year, her own name sake's month, precisely on the bicentenary of the current monarch's ancestor, Queen Victoria, she has announced her intention to step down once a successor to her post will have been elected. While her stubbornness seems exhausted, that of her erstwhile rivals, later bitter adversaries plus some close associates to succeed her is apparently undaunted by the odds they are up to.

Ear-marked in the current Oscar Wilde calendar on 24th May, the date when the current Prime Minister announced she would resign is just the eve of the 124th anniversary of the day when Wilde received his sentence in 1895. And perhaps some of you may know that while the major representatives of the Victorian age were intent on ostracizing Wilde, the writer himself venerated “his” queen as much as to invite boys the age of his own sons to a Diamond Jubilee Party in 1897 when staying at Dieppe, just after his release from prison, that is.

As a true European, he spoke more than just a handful of words from various languages, writing French as well as to think of conceiving a whole play, “Salomé”, that is, or many literary letters in that language. Wilde, who certainly was a conservative in many senses of the term, still was able to perceive social inequality in his day and age, whether in the United States or in the United Kingdom, or to pinpoint it in historical disguise when writing “Salomé”, for example.

Writing his sole political essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” in the winter following the publication of his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890), Wilde quite certainly still suffered from the controversial reception this work first had, so he may have felt an urge to publish not only a selection of his aphorisms in a defensive mode – later turned into the well-known preface of the novel when published as a book. Also, Wilde was still thinking of the fragile position of the literary artist in his country when penning “The Soul of Man under Socialism.”

You may ask why am I telling yous all this in the wake of the eleventh European Election that the UK only took part in not to endanger the functioning of the much-maligned European institutions. In fact, a link is not easily established. At the same time, let's make the experiment of thinking of Wilde as the individual who all his life sought to assimilate, only to realize that he would remain the odd man out in the society he so urgently tried to integrate. So when one day his game was up, he was utterly unable to win because not only were his adversaries willing to cheat, they also had the public and published opinion of the day behind them. This is something you may be prepared to accept.

As for the United Kingdom, the sole member of the EU who has as yet tried to leave that club without actually being blackballed (something which Wilde tried to avoid by leaving certain clubs of his own accord), we need to look back the 45 odd years of the UK's membership to see that for most the time its representative have made it look like the enfant terrible any family is prepared to tolerate for only a limited period before closing the ranks once everybody else is fed up with his or, more rarely, her failure to behave him- or herself.

While most eye and ear witnesses of the early days when the “Iron Lady” purportedly hit the negotiating table with her handbag, shouting she wanted her money back, are now gone and long past political retirement, there is only the President of the European Commission who may really have felt he had a mission to complete once it became clear that not only did they want to leave, they also sought to continue “cherry-picking”.

Doing this in the context of next to total historical oblivion of what Europe had meant for Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of the UK, the very same lady politician, heiress to the luckless Cameron, had set out to square the circle – satisfying the people at home by repeating the mantra of “delivering Brexit on 29th March 2019” while telling the Europeans abroad one would one day soon achieve a compromise – not only with the EU but at home, too. That lady was too oblivious of the nature of the role her predecessors, in particular the particular lady with the handbag, had established to grasp fully that trying the time-worn British concept of ruling colonies by causing divisions would not work this time, for they were also up against the self-confident Irish who knew how to gain support – as they had done during World War One, only to realize that after the Armistice nobody was prepared to honour their promise given when still in need of Irish soldiery.

The late Prime Minister's handbag was certainly spacious enough to symbolize the net payment the UK has made in the past decades to the EU Budget, while for Wilde readers it means a reference to his comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) where a baby was left in just such a bag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station. Left alone, the baby needed to be found and reared by someone more charitable than his mother at the time of a perhaps untimely birth. The membership of the UK in the EU, however, was not such a surprise. And the electorate did agree to it, too, in 1975.

At the same time, though, you might think it worth your while thinking in terms of that analogy of giving birth for a moment. Considering the UK entering the EU in 1973 as buying its future in a kind of handbag the contents of which might resemble the Box of Pandora to some, while others foresaw a bright future beyond the demise of the Empire, one could come to the conclusion that the just about 15 % of the total electorate who voted for the Brexit party last week have simply failed to see that we have moved on almost fifty years since the country first joined the EU.

In fact, I strongly believe that the basic problem is that participation has never been the forte of the British democracy. A meagre 37 per cent voted in the UK last week, allowing the Brexit party to clinch a victory almost uncontested by the two parties still dominating the House of Commons. It was different in the Celtic Fringe, with Scotland being slightly better than England and Wales, and Northern Ireland almost eight per cent but trailing behind the Republic of Ireland with almost 50 % per cent. It is not a surprise, then, that both the Liberal Democrats, demolished by the two last General Elections, and the Green Party did well in their wake, leaving Labour in third and the “True Blues” in fifth place. In Northern Ireland, three ladies won, two being Remainers, and there a single Scottish Brexit Party MEP now, with the Remainers led by the Scottish National Party being clearly in the majority.

What might have been possible if the Commons had been brave enough to ask the electorate for a considered view of the disaster MPs had wrought in the last two years?

Well, since 2011, perhaps thanks to the then ruling Coalition Government between the Conservatives and the Lib-Dem Party, the Royal Prerogative of dissolving the House of Commons at any time on the advice of the current Prime Minister has become a fixed rule of having a parliamentary election every five years on the first Thursday in May. Early elections, as the rule now says, are to be held only if two thirds of the MPs are in favour or if, after a Prime Minister has lost a vote of confidence, he or she cannot be replaced by someone else within a fortnight.

I had thought the Royal Prerogative was still in place when I argued in an earlier blog post that perhaps a word from the mouth of the monarch might be helpful. In fact, her mouth has been completely gagged in this respect since the passing of rule quoted above eight years ago. And if the current deadlock is not a crisis when something like the Royal Prerogative could still be exercised with discretion in order to discipline a House of Commons unable to find a common solution, I don't know what needs to happen to talk of such an emergency.

Of course, I am talking of someone who, a friend helpfully reminded me, never said a word in public about the “Troubles” that lasted from 1969 to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Thinking of that, it is not only the Westminster Government and Parliament that might not be trustworthy in crucial questions, it is also the State as represented by the monarchy which in the person of the current Queen only came back to Ireland after more than a hundred years earlier this century.

In this, I want to show that history is not just something which belongs up in the attic, like the picture of Dorian Gray, or in the cupboard of the spare room, like the proverbial skeleton or the Canterville Ghost, it is around haunting us all the time. Another example may be the fact that the present incumbent in the White House is going to be only the third President ever to have been invited over for a State Visit, following two of his recent predecessors. This cannot but mean that in terms of the two states, there never has been the so-called “Special Relationship” between the US and the UK. This reminds me that Erskine Childers, a true British patriot before World War One, belonged to the first official delegation visiting the United States in the 1900s after the War of Independence and other skirmishes dating to the early 1800s. So, if history for the United Kingdom has such reverberations when it comes to the relationship to the United States, why has it not been possible to find eligible politicians in either major party who would be able to sell the positive aspects of the EU and their effects on the UK as well as to make sure the more personally flexible part of the electorate even bothered to participate? Certainly, the reason is not that being the longest-lasting democratic system in Europe to date the UK has managed to make its people enthusiastic about it.

All throughout Europe, there is erosion within the parties that dominated the post-war period and continued to do so when after the opening of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Socialist block many countries began a new era. And this erosion has certainly reached the UK, too. Brave and outspoken individuals are needed whose intelligence will help voters accept that nothing that is really good is going to be plain sailing. Neither propaganda nor populism are going to help, and Oscar Wilde would have understood that given that he always chose his own way rather the trodden paths.

Leer, 28th to 30th May 2019, the latter also being the 124th anniversary of the first publication of “The Soul of Man” in book form


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